Judge dishes dirt on Melbourne cleaning business fined for “gross exploitation” of international students

A Melbourne cleaning contractor has copped a significant $50,000 fine for not paying three international students any wages for several weeks of work, following action from the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The underpayment committed by Bentleigh man Terrence Thomas, the owner of Over the Top Happy Cleaning Services, was labelled a “gross exploitation” by Judge Heather Riley in Melbourne’s Federal Circuit Court.

Thomas underpaid three male international students who were all in their 20s a total of $6820 between 2009 and 2010.

The men had worked for a total of 331 hours but never saw a cent for their labour.

The part-time and casual employees worked across Melbourne doing jobs such as vacuuming, mopping floors, emptying bins and cleaning windows, laundries, toilets, offices and kitchens.

Thomas has been fined a total of $52,800 and ordered to back-pay the international students in full within 60 days.

The imposed fine was 80% of the available maximum penalty and Riley said Thomas had shown no remorse over exploiting the workers.

“The experience of the three employees in this case indicates that the respondent had a modus operandi that involved gross exploitation of vulnerable workers.

“There must be a clear message to employers that not paying vulnerable workers will not be tolerated. There is a clear need to ensure compliance with minimum standards, particularly in the contract cleaning industry where many vulnerable workers are employed,” Riley found.

SmartCompany contacted Over the Top Happy Cleaning Services, but received no response prior to publication.

Holding Redlich workplace relations lawyer Joel Zyngier told SmartCompany the exploitation of the most vulnerable in Australian society is unlikely to stop occurring.

“It’s an unfortunate part of our economy that there are vulnerable workers and there are people who are willing to exploit them.

“The FWO is keenly aware of this and at our firm we do see some instances of workers coming to us having been exploited and, equally, we advise our employer clients how to avoid these issues,” he says.

Zyngier says the FWO prosecutes these cases “firmly”.

“The pecuniary penalties have recently increased and when there is a case involving vulnerable workers, this could be anyone from a foreign worker or a worker with an impairment, the ombudsman is quite keen to stamp it out.

“One of the things it seeks is penalties as a deterrent,” he says.

Zyngier says the fine in this case is so hefty because of the “lack of contrition”.

“There was deliberate and gross exploitation of vulnerable workers. On the other end of the spectrum, if it hadn’t been deliberate there might have been a nominal penalty in the range of $1000 or $2000.

“The FWO is targeting the cleaning industry and has been for quite some time. From time to time they have targeted campaigns where they use all of their various powers including inspection, door-knocking and court action,” he says.

Earlier in the week, the FWO launched proceedings against Thrifty Car Rental in Rockhampton for the alleged underpayment of a 60-year-old man.




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